How Mugabe resisted arrest

"His face turned ashen." Peter Tatchell recalls his attempt to bring a tyrant to justice

As the Commonwealth meets to discuss the crisis in Zimbabwe, Jack Straw rails impotently against President Mugabe's abuse of human rights. But three years ago, the government squandered an opportunity to end those abuses. It could have arrested Robert Mugabe in October 1999, when he came to London on a private shopping spree.

There was ample evidence to prosecute the Zimbabwean leader on charges of torture. Instead of putting him on trial, the then Foreign Office minister Peter Hain invited him to tea. Mugabe returned to Zimbabwe to plot further assaults on an already tenuous democracy. Appalled by the government's inaction, I had decided to enforce the law myself.

On Thursday 28 October 1999, I received an anonymous midnight phone call: "President Mugabe is in London on his annual pre-Christmas shopping trip to Harrods. He is staying at the St James's Court Hotel in Victoria, and flies back to Zimbabwe at 6pm on Saturday." Before I could say a word, the caller hung up.

My first thought was: trick or treat? It was, after all, only three nights before Halloween. Taking a gamble that it was a genuine tip-off, I had 30 hours to come up with a plan of action.

I didn't sleep much that night. The next morning, it hit me. I would put Mugabe under citizen's arrest on charges of torture. Section 24(5) of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 gives a private citizen the power of arrest, where there are reasonable grounds for suspecting that a person has committed a crime. There was plenty of evidence implicating Mugabe in the use of torture, and torture is a crime under international and UK statutes.

The 1984 UN Convention against Torture has been incorporated into UK domestic law. Section 134 of the 1988 Criminal Justice Act stipulates that anyone who commits or authorises torture anywhere in the world can be arrested and tried in Britain. There is no immunity for heads of state. My idea was to do to President Mugabe what the government had done to General Pinochet.

Friday was frantic. I biked over to Amnesty International to get copies of the relevant legislation and a dossier on two well-known Zimbabwean torture victims, the journalists Ray Choto and Mark Chavunduka.

According to Amnesty International: "Military interrogators beat both men all over their bodies with fists, wooden planks and rubber sticks, particularly on the soles of their feet, and gave them electric shocks all over the body, including the genitals. The men were also subjected to 'the submarine' - having their heads wrapped in plastic bags and submerged in a water tank until they suffocated."

In legal affidavits, corroborated by the Zimbabwe high court, Choto and Chavunduka say their interrogators told them they were being tortured on Mugabe's orders. The president has since refused to condemn their torture and, indeed, appears to endorse it by suggesting that they got what they deserved. These affidavits provided the legal basis for a citizen's arrest of Mugabe, and for him to be charged by the police and put on trial in a British court.

At lunchtime, I did a recce of the St James's Court Hotel and the street outside; sizing up security, identifying suitable points for an ambush, and discreetly sketching plans of the area. Later, calling from phone boxes - not my own telephone - I contacted colleagues in the gay rights group OutRage! Even though it was unlikely their phones were bugged, I dared not give full details. Perhaps because of this vagueness, only three people volunteered. We agreed to meet at St James's Park Tube the next morning.

Huddled in the booking hall, at 8.30am on Saturday 30 October 1999, we fine-tuned my plan to ambush Mugabe's limousine as he left the hotel. We guessed he would go shopping at Harrods in the morning. Sure enough, shortly after 11am, the president's car pulled out of the hotel courtyard into Buckingham Gate.

Exactly according to plan, my three OutRage! co-conspirators - Alistair Williams, Chris Morris and John Hunt - walked into the road, directly into the path of Mugabe's limo, forcing it to screech to a halt. I ran from behind, opened the rear door, grabbed Mugabe by the arm, and read him the charge: "President Mugabe, you are under arrest for torture. Torture is a crime under international law."

We feared Mugabe's bodyguards were armed and might threaten to shoot us. But their initial reaction was stunned disbelief and paralysis. Mugabe's jaw dropped. His face turned ashen. As he shrank back in his seat, the president's eyes betrayed real fear. Perhaps he thought we were going to kill him.

To reassure the bodyguards of our peaceful intention, and hopefully pre-empt any shooting, I shouted at the top of my voice: "Call the police. The president is under arrest on charges of torture."

When the police arrived, I offered my evidence for Mugabe's arrest. They were not interested. The dossier from Amnesty International was knocked aside.

While other officers aided Mugabe's escape, we were arrested and later charged with public disorder under Sections 4 and 5 of the 1986 Public Order Act. I leaked our defence to the Crown Prosecution Service: that we had made a lawful citizen's arrest of a person suspected of the crime of torture. When the trial opened, the CPS declined to offer any evidence. All charges were dropped.

We did not succeed in bringing Mugabe to justice, but the legal case against him remains. Britain and most other Commonwealth countries have ratified the UN Convention against Torture. When will they start enforcing it?

If the government had ordered Mugabe's arrest in 1999, he would have been unable to return to Zimbabwe to continue his despotic rule. Many lives might have been saved. It is not too late. Commonwealth agreement to issue warrants for Mugabe's arrest would be a good start - and infinitely preferable to Jack Straw's ineffectual condemnations.